Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Men's Soccer: NOVA Royals vs Reading Rage

The women's game concluded with plenty of sunlight and the men took the field at around 7pm.

We're just about at the point where days are getting noticeably shorter now, but there is still plenty of light around between 7pm and 8pm. Beyond 8pm it starts getting pretty dark and the stadium lighting is needed in order to shoot.

Larry shuffled off to process his photos of the Majestics but I stayed behind to cover the final home game of the Royals. Tonight's match up against the Reading Rage started out well with both teams competing to win their last games of the season. Tough competition makes for good shots, and I was excited to be there for the final game.

When the sun gets really low in the sky you have to shoot with the sun to your back. You simply can't shoot into the sun when it's low in the sun even if you have a lens hood and great glass. There's simply too much light entering the camera directly from the source rather than from bouncing off of your subjects. If you try to shoot towards the sun you will overexpose and your subjects will be completely out of focus.

This makes it challenging when covering late day games and you're trying to specifically target one team. If that particular team isn't shooting against a goal with a favorable lighting position you're screwed. In the case of the Royals this weekend the lighting was favorable and the sun was setting behind the opponents goal during the first half. That means that the Royals were attacking into the sun, which means that their faces are well lit and the colors are vibrant. But, as the sun set and went behind some tall trees part of the field was occluded in shadow.

When part of the field went behind the shadow I moved to the opposite side of the goal and covered the side of the field that was still lit. It wasn't as good as the first position because it was on the "weak" side (the left hand side). But I managed to get a few shots.

During the women's game earlier Larry and I discussed what settings we used on our D200s. Larry pointed me in the direction of the Image Optimizations. I've looked at the Image Optimizations in the past, but have left them on the Auto setting. The other settings are Vivid, More Vivid, Softer, More Soft, Auto, Custom, and None. Larry recommended setting the image optimizations to "Custom" so that you can control the sharpness, saturation, color mode, and a few other settings.

Between the Majestics and Royals game I poked around in the Image Optimizations menu and located the Sharpness setting. Larry had reported good success with "None", but I thought I'd give "More Sharp (+2)" a try. When the sun started setting I increased my ISO from 400 to 800 and took a few test shots.

To my surprise the Image Optimization made a huge difference! My shots didn't appear nearly as soft when I looked at them in the 2.5" LCD on the back of the camera. I was practically jumping up and down with excitement. I couldn't wait to get home and take a look at the pictures under a microscope.

I also took a few shots using "None" as the image optimization for comparison purposes. When I took a look at the shots later on that evening the "More Sharp (+2)" images came out a lot better. I'm very impressed with how sharp the shots came out under low light conditions. I'm also very excited because after shooting 9 games with "soft" results I feel like I'm finally turning a corner. Too bad it took me 9 games!

During this shoot I also learned about how "off" a camera's meter can be. In the past I've used Aperture priority mode, which basically locks the aperture at a certain value and allows the shutter speed to change to whatever the camera's meter determines is an appropriate speed to properly expose the image. The problem with aperture priority mode is that it's not always accurate. Lots of times I move my camera around: I point it down at the ground, or at some players on the bench, or up in the air, or at the grass. If something happens really quickly I've found that the meter doesn't always sample the light source properly and I'll end up with an under or over exposed photo (usually overexposed).

I had a LOT of overexposed shots during tonight's game. I'll have to think about that in the future and maybe use Manual mode more. In manual mode you're explicitly setting the ISO, shutter speed, and aperture size. You're basically removing the metering system from the camera when you use manual mode. From what I hear from other photographers it's not too difficult to use and it results in really consistent exposures. It results in consistent exposures because your light source usually isn't variable! But, when shooting in aperture priority mode your shutter speed is highly variable as the meter calculates what speed it thinks is right for the light setting.

As the sun continued to set I removed my 2X TC and went back to shooting at 200mm with f2.8. It was remarkable how few opportunities I had in comparison to shooting from 140mm-400mm. I felt more like a spectator than a photographer because so much action took place on the other end of the field and I couldn't reach it using my lens.

A big problem you have with short glass on a long field is that the light reflected off of your subjects diffuses into a million different places before it reaches the focal position of your lens. If your subjects are 10 feet away they reflect a lot of light at your lens but when you're standing really far away there isn't a lot of light thrown back your way. As a result, cropping to zoom doesn't work. In low light and on long fields you really need long glass.

It was overly apparent to me that if I'm going to cover soccer and other field sports this fall I need to either accept that I'm going to have to shoot during the day and use my TC or I'm going to have to invest in a 300mm lens. Trying to use 70-200 to cover an entire soccer field is really limiting.

So after covering 9 games for the Royals and Majestics I'm walking away from USL for the season happy having met a lot of players and learning a lot about my camera and how it performs on the soccer field. I've take a lot of different photos of the teams and have been happy with my results, and I'm hoping that next year they'll invite me back to cover some more games. I'll also be compiling a CD that contains all of the pictures I've taken during the year and I'll be sending that to Mo Sheta (the GM for the Royals and Majestics). I've asked him to make copies of it and share it with the players so that they have access to their photos.

You never know which one of them might go pro and end up calling me up in the future and ask me to cover a game. Ok, maybe that's a bit of a stretch..


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